By Javed Ali
This article appeared in New America on May 4, 2020.
Amidst the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, the Trump Administration’s nominee for the permanent Director of National Intelligence (DNI) position Representative John Ratcliffe will appear in an Senate Select Intelligence Committee (SSCI) hearing tomorrow as the first step in his possible confirmation. Representative Ratcliffe was floated as a possible DNI pick last summer after former DNI Dan Coats left the position, but concerns regarding his lack of deep experience on intelligence issues, and perceived political loyalty to the President and inability to objectively lead the US Intelligence Community led his nomination to stall out. Despite such reservations, the White House nominated Representative Ratcliffe in late February again for the role and if hearings are indeed held next week, this will be the time he can answer questions about his vision for the DNI role. He could also discuss potential new measures for the Office of the DNI (ODNI) to reorient and reposture in the age of infectious disease threats like COVID-19.
As the Washington Post has reported, the US Intelligence Community performed its key function of detecting signs of an unusual infectious disease outbreak—which we now know as COVID-19— in China in early 2020, and wrote assessments informing the President and other senior policymakers about what was known at the time. How much clarity and detail was contained in those intelligence assessments is unknown, and if they prompted serious discussion to take initial preventative measures to keep the disease from entering into the United States or mobilizing the medical and emergency response system to deal with such an eventuality. Currently while this is some expertise on infectious diseases and related topics in the Intelligence Community, this cohort is relatively small in comparison to other national security subjects. One center of excellence is an element called the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), which is part of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
While the NCMI is most likely providing significant value and insight—it probably played a significant role in the intelligence assessment referenced by ODNI yesterday regarding the origins of COVID-19 in China—establishing a true national-level position could help achieve an increased dimension of intelligence integration on COVID-19 and other infectious disease threats. There are already a number of similar positions called National Intelligence Managers (NIMs) for a variety of critical national security priorities and threats, and the most recent one was created last year to help coordinate Intelligence Community efforts against foreign interference in U.S. elections—which was seen as a heightened priority given the scope of scale of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
If there is less appetite for a Infectious Disease NIM or something akin to this role, then perhaps the ODNI would be in favor of a position that resembles a National Intelligence Officer (NIO) to oversee strategic and estimative analysis on infectious disease threats and the country’s ability to respond to them in the future. A third potential is the creation of an expanded version of the NCMI housed in ODNI that brings together all the Intelligence Community’s expertise on infectious diseases—similar to the role the National Counterterrorism Center played after its creation in 2004, and national security heavyweights like former National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and former Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco have already floated this idea. However, unlike the NIM or NIO positions, this would require a significant investment in time, resources, and energy to get off the ground and running with a new construct and functionality beyond what the NCMI already provides. Having served in both the National Intelligence Council and the National Counterterrorism Center for a combined six years during my career, I see the potential value in in some of these measures based on the benefits of enhanced integration and collaboration in counterterrorism.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that the United States has some intelligence capabilities regarding the infectious disease issue but likely needs additional ones to inform policymakers of threats in real-time, help minimize the potential for future outbreaks, and assist with long-term preparedness, response, and mitigation measures. Representative Ratcliffe has an opportunity to address these topics should his nomination go forward next week with SSCI, and should he be ultimately confirmed by the full Senate, reorient ODNI to this pressing threat. Now seems like the right moment to consider new steps on the intelligence front.